The Third Wife
Nguyen Phuong Tra My, Mai Thu Huong Maya, Tran Nu Yen Khe
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…delectably stylish and completely insular…
It’s no surprise that Tran Anh Hung receives an artistic advisor credit for The Third Wife. The French-Vietnamese director’s shadow looms long over Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut, the chronicle of a 14-year-old girl married off to a wealthy landowner in 19th century Vietnam. Her approach studiously mirrors the aesthetic Tran pioneered in transnational ‘90s films The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, Vietnam’s first entries onto the stage of world cinema.
Tran’s wife and muse Tran Nu Yen Khe has a prominent role as the first wife, positioned ambiguously between ally and contender in relation to the protagonist. The film is delectably stylish and completely insular, its characters framed by mountains and confined by the corridors of the husband’s homestead. There are no traces of historical context, despite France’s escalating intrusions into Vietnam at the time.
The Third Wife stirred controversy and was banned in Vietnam for unusual sexual frankness involving its young lead. Yet the film is less about explicit sex than delving into the underlying power dynamic of the household, emanating from a mostly unseen yet omnipresent patriarch. In this respect, Mayfair is borrowing freely from Raise the Red Lantern and Zhang Yimou’s other early folk adaptations, particularly their juxtaposition of human (feminine) vulnerability against the austerity and hierarchy of tradition; in The Third Wife, as in Zhang’s work, this is encapsulated in the classical architecture of the mansion, the film’s chief setting and effective prison.
As much as she wears her influences on her sleeve, Mayfair also makes bold choices. Her cutting is unusual, and she is not afraid to let scenes play out wordlessly: the film’s opening passage allows a good ten minutes before the first line of dialogue. This aligns with the film’s theme on the difficultly of a woman finding a voice within the overwhelmingly male-centric environment, a feminist perspective subtly expressed through the craft. Against this backdrop, An Ton That’s eerie score plays a huge role in the creation of mood.
Mayfair, who also wrote the script, is attuned to the languid rhythms of daily life in pre-modern Vietnam; the film has a strong sense of period authenticity, with the exception of a same-sex moment that comes off as weirdly anachronistic. Assisted by Thai-American cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, she balances realism and symbolism: The Third Wife abounds with sensual feminine images – gauze and fabric, flowers, water.
It’s clear that Mayfair views this as a life-and-death struggle for her characters, but there is little sense of build to the film. The final shot is also, a misjudgement. All the same, this is a promising debut: it bubbles and lingers intuitively.